In June of 1969, a few days after NBC aired the final burn-off episode of "Star Trek," a series it had canceled four months earlier, engineers temporarily dammed half of Niagara Falls as part of an effort to stem erosion there. After studying the dry ledge and the basin below, geologists concluded that there wasn't an awful lot they could do to preserve the American Falls, and that the waters of Lake Erie would likely subsume the landmark in around 50,000 years, give or take.
Fast-forward 47 years, and CBS is prepping the first "Star Trek" series in more than a decade, to stream exclusively on the network's over-the-top service, and the erosion of primetime TV ratings is more implacable than the assault on that big pile of rocks outside Buffalo, N.Y.
"The numbers have shrunk so much in the last 10 years that you almost have to put the 'broad' in 'broadcast' in air quotes," said one TV buyer. "Between the fragmentation and all the time-shifting, there are almost no big-reach vehicles left, unless you have the money to spend on football."
For the fourth year in a row, every Big Four broadcast network will finish the season with less than a 3.0 rating among 18-to-49-year-olds. Only two returning broadcast shows have grown this season: CBS's "60 Minutes," up 7%, and sophomore NBC sitcom "The Carmichael Show," up 9%, according to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data.
Meanwhile, some of last season's strongest performers have suffered the greatest declines, including NBC's "The Blacklist" (down 38% in live-plus-same-day ratings), ABC's "How to Get Away With Murder" (down 37%), Fox's "Gotham" (down 33%) and CBS's "Scorpion" (down 22%). All told, 30 returning broadcast series saw their ratings in their network's demographic targets drop by at least 20%.
Where does TV go from a place like this?
Networks are almost certain to scale back the ratings guarantees they offer in their upfront negotiations. When commercial ratings in the three days after shows air, known as C3, fell 8% in primetime for the 2014-15 season, the Big Four dropped their performance targets by around 6% on average.
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They are also renewing series that once would have been canceled. Buyers say it's much easier to model out how a veteran show will fare in its battle-tested time slot than it is to predict what an unknown property will do in its first few weeks on the air.
"When I have a tough time getting a read on whether a new show will work out, I push it into the back end of the plan," said one national TV buyer. "That reduces the risk by giving me some time to move out of it if it starts to take on water."
This year's development slate has failed to yield a breakout hit like last season's "Empire" on Fox, or the one-two punch of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" back in the autumn of 2004. The average rating for this season's 39 new shows is a runty 1.2, or around 1.52 million adults age 18 to 49 out of a population of 126.8 million.
While it's far too early to speculate on how the upfront will shake out—except to say that the strength of the ad prices in the recent so-called scatter market would seem to favor the bold—there should be an unprecedented amount of familiar ad environments for buyers. Thus far, the average rating for series that have already earned a renewal or are obvious candidates is a 1.7, down two-tenths from last season and down a good 26% from the 2.3 average in 2012-13.
**3-month WGA strike resulted in shortened orders for 47 scripted shows
Charts by Chen Wu
One new wrinkle is the ballyhooed shift from hidebound demographic categories to more detailed, audience-based guarantees. NBC Universal was the first network group to really bang the drum on data-driven sales, as Linda Yaccarino, chairman-ad sales and partnerships, began looking for ways to sell against comprehensive audience deliveries rather than remain in thrall to the eternal compromise that is the C3 currency. Since then, Viacom and Turner Broadcasting have begun similar pivots.
Originally designed as a placeholder of sorts while agencies and networks could work together to adopt a more advanced minute-by-minute commercial ratings metric, C3 has been the coin of the realm ever since GroupM, the world's largest ad buyer, first used it as the negotiating currency during the early days of the 2007-08 upfront. It blends a very rough, weight-averaged estimate of average commercial ratings with three days of time-shifted viewing; as such, it offers the best approximation of actual ad deliveries.
Earlier this year, Ms. Yaccarino told an industry confab that C3 is "practically useless," saying she believed that Nielsen was undercounting shows like "Blindspot" by as many as 700,000 adults age 18 to 49. "Imagine you're a quarterback, and every time you threw a touchdown it was only worth four points. That's basically what I'm dealing with every friggin' day." Any change is evolutionary, though. The bulk of TV spending will remain tethered to Nielsen's age-and-sex measurement for the near term.
And then there's a war to wage against overstatements of digital media's prowess. Since April 8, when BuzzFeed live-streamed two hazmat-suited millennials begirdling a melon with rubber bands for 45 minutes until it burst, media outlets and social butterflies have been falling all over themselves to declare it served as some sort of referendum on the future of TV.
Sure it did.
Some 807,114 souls were logged in to BuzzFeed's Facebook page the moment the watermelon gave up the ghost, and as much as that marked a splendid turnout for essentially a time-lapse Gallagher gag with an uptalking soundtrack, subsequent comparisons to traditional TV were well off the mark.
The aforementioned 807,114 BuzzFeed views were tallied at the very end of the stream, as pieces of melon were still hitting the floor. On the other hand, when Nielsen reported that 803,000 viewers that same day watched a repeat of "Tyler Perry's For Better or Worse" on the Oprah Winfrey Network, that figure represented OWN's average delivery in each minute of the show's 9 p.m. time slot. It's an apples-to-cantaloupes comparison, but average out the BuzzFeed deliveries over the 45 minutes and the viral video would rate well below "For Better or Worse" on any Nielsen chart.
BuzzFeed's peak viewer totals and the measurements that ground TV's $65 billion ad market both provide clumsy approximations of relevance; in the case of BuzzFeed's Facebook video, it's due to the lack of standard currency, whereas TV measurement remains hampered by an inexact assessment of the deliveries actually guaranteed to advertisers.
Ultimately, the future of ratings needs to be better ratings.